How ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ honored Godzilla’s Japanese roots

“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” is a family affair.

In the show’s present day, Cate Randa, portrayed by Anna Sawai, is trying to learn the truth about her father’s disappearance along with her newly discovered half-brother Kentaro (Ren Watabe) and May (Kiersey Clemons), an expat hacker running from her past.

Over the course of the series, they’ve learned that the Randa family has long been in the business of studying Godzilla.

Episode 9 of “Monarch,” which hits Apple TV+ Friday, will pick up after a cliffhanger that saw Cate, May and Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell) fall into a giant hole in the ground and, presumably, a deep underground portal to another world.

A part of Legendary’s interconnected Monsterverse, the 10-episode Apple TV+ series follows two different trios of characters more than 50 years apart: Cate, Kentaro and May in 2015 and Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto), Bill Randa (Anders Holm) and Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) in the 1950s. For one trio, Godzilla is the enigmatic and elusive subject of research. For the other, the giant kaiju — or Titan, in Monsterverse parlance — is more of a dangerous obstacle.

Set after the events of 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Monarch” is “about this brother and sister trying to figure out who their father is, and the giant monsters keep getting in the way,” said executive producer Matt Fraction, who developed the series with showrunner Chris Black. “It’s not about buildings getting knocked over and stuff blowing up.”

But as Godzilla fans themselves, Black and Fraction are keenly aware that part of the appeal of the Monsterverse films is the spectacle of things getting knocked over and blown up. Their goal was to deliver those elements “at a level that people expect from those movies” wherever they were able to, said Black.

Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe), left, Emiko (Qyoko Kudo) and Cate (Anna Sawai) in “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.”

(Apple TV+)

Still, at its core, “Monarch” is a messy intergenerational family drama about a Japanese and Japanese American family (with a few messy love stories too).

Sawai, who was looking for a bit of a reprieve after coming off of a heavier project (FX’s upcoming “Shōgun”), admits she was initially wary that Cate — who survived an up-close encounter with Godzilla only to find out her absent father was living a double life — could come off as just a victim of everything that has happened to her.

“But when I realized that she felt bad about herself, that she wasn’t able to forgive herself, that was what was interesting,” said Sawai. “In order to come to terms with everything that has happened to her, she needs to forgive herself … and tell herself that it wasn’t her fault. When I figured that out, she didn’t feel like the one-dimensional character that she could be.”

The journey kicks off when, after heading to Tokyo to settle her father’s affairs, she discovers her father had a secret second family.

Kentaro, her younger half-brother, is an up-and-coming artist who also is still grappling with his father’s apparent death. Watabe, a newcomer who auditioned for the role while working as a line cook in Japan, describes him as “a regular guy.”

“When I received the script, I felt like I knew what this guy is and how he’d probably act,” he said. “I’m glad that I had a character that I can kind of relate to [because] it took me a while to understand what I was doing. But I just tried to focus on the work.”

Black says “it just felt obvious” to start their story in Japan.

“You can go anywhere in the world and they know what Godzilla is, but his cultural homeland and birthplace is Japan,” said Black. “It felt to Matt and I like that’s where the story’s got to start. Once we made that decision, in creating a group of Japanese characters and a Japanese family, it was incredibly important to us that this be authentic, that we not be trying to mimic or appropriate someone else’s culture. We didn’t want to fake Japan.”

This involved casting Japanese actors who were native or fluent in the language and could speak up when their characters’ dialogue didn’t quite work.

“We would write a scene the way we knew how to write it, in colloquial American English, and then it would be translated into Japanese,” said Black. “The actors would come to us and say, ‘The phrasing you’re using here, a Japanese person wouldn’t say this this way.’”

Added Fraction: “Even if we spoke Japanese as a second language, that idiomatic stuff is the hardest thing to get.”

Kiersey Clemons, Anna Sawai and Ren Watabe leaning their heads close together for a photo

For her role in “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” Kiersey Clemons, left with Anna Sawai and Ren Watabe, had to learn Japanese.

(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)

Because Cate is Japanese American, Sawai says she didn’t rework much of the language “because it was OK that it was a little bit rigid.”

“I had to put on a bit of an American accent when I spoke Japanese,” said Sawai, who was born in New Zealand and is of Japanese descent. “And it was very intentional when she was using the language because it was her secret language with her dad. So I didn’t have a lot of Japanese dialogue.”

But Watabe says he translated his lines himself “because what they were doing wasn’t working for me.”

“There’s the English script and then I had to translate [it into] my own words, which worked out for the character,” said Watabe. “But that was really difficult, to be honest. I think it’s a learning experience. From here on forward, we should have a proper writer who can write in Japanese.”

Sawai, who has worked on multiple projects where dialogue written in English has been translated into Japanese, agreed that “you need a bilingual person” to make it work.

“It’s so difficult because when you translate the English line, it’s never going to turn out the same way,” said Sawai. “The language is just different. It’s structured differently and we speak in a different way. If you take what’s directly translated, that’s not how we speak.”

Watabe also found himself questioning whether the accuracy would matter to the audiences if they were predominantly English speakers who did not understand Japanese. But Sawai reassured him that it was still important that he made the effort to get it right no matter the size of the Japanese-speaking audience. She also commended the “Monarch” creatives for being open to making these adjustments.

Unlike Sawai and Watabe, Clemons had to learn Japanese for her role, and she admits it was difficult.

“In the beginning it sounded so fast and it’s not an accent I’m familiar with at all,” said Clemons. “I feel like I made [Anna and Ren] listen to me a lot.”

Signing on to portray May involved trusting Black and Fraction’s promise of what was to come for the character, she added, since most of her backstory and her ties to the broader Monsterverse lore were not revealed until later in the series.

“They definitely did May justice,” said Clemons. “I think that everyone in the beginning half of this series is probably wondering, ‘What is she doing here? What is her motive?’ It’s a slow burn that’s well earned.”

Ren Watabe, Anna Sawai and Kiersey Clemons peer into a hole in a wall with flashlights

Kentaro (Ren Watabe), Cate (Anna Sawai) and May (Kiersey Clemons), whose backstory comes to the fore in later episodes of “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.”

(Apple TV+)

When asked about Cate and May’s evolving dynamic, Sawai and Clemons admit they aren’t quite sure where the relationship is headed either.

“Something I really appreciate about the show is that all of the love stories are so messy and all of the love stories are love triangles,” said Clemons. “I really, really like that it’s actually something that maybe you don’t pick up on unless you’re queer. … There’s all of these communities of people that need representation on film and TV and it feels like there’s these little nuggets that are just kind of for us.”

For the “Monarch” team, authenticity was more than just getting the language right. The series filmed in Tokyo, which came with its own learning curve, and the team was always adjusting details like what food a mother might have on hand for a late-night meal and what snack foods have a recognizable commercial jingle.

“The places we shot were the kind of places in Tokyo you don’t usually see onscreen,” said Fraction. “It delighted our Japanese crew when we were over there. … It’s parts of Tokyo that aren’t seen but it’s super authentic.”

Black and Fraction explained that ultimately, their approach was to be as open as possible to people telling them they got something wrong. This involved listening to their Japanese actors, the Japanese production team in Tokyo and the Japanese casting director, as well as the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian writers on the “Monarch” staff.

The executive producers also are aware of one thing they did not get quite right about Tokyo: the size of Kentaro and his mother’s apartment.

“Everyone who had ever lived or worked in Japan pointed out to us that the apartment that Emiko and Kentara live in is way too big,” Black said of the apartment set built in Vancouver. “No one in Tokyo has an apartment that big.”

“But if in the Godzilla Monsterverse show, that’s where your suspension of disbelief gets rocked, we’re doing good,” joked Fraction.

Despite its challenges — including communication issues, the language barrier and different filming restrictions that exist in Japan — Sawai and Watabe say they are proud to have been able to be involved in an international production with the scale of “Monarch” in their home country.

“I’ve always wanted the Japanese community to be able to go a little bit more global,” said Sawai. “To be able to see the collaboration of the North American team and the Japanese crew, it felt like we were doing something new and stepping up in a way.”

“I’m not Japanese, but the fact that there is cultural significance in this show versus other universes was really exciting for me,” said Clemons. “We’re on a show that is led by people of color. That’s really f— cool.”

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